Connecting Faith and Life

Jesus on Divorce

Divorce on fairly trivial grounds were common in the time of Jesus. The Mosaic legislation was mostly misrepresented as a sanction for divorce rather as regulation. Divorce was seen as morally right and lawful. All that mattered was the certificate of divorce (Matt.5:31). Moreover, in the society, instead of death, divorce became the socially accepted punishment for adultery. Therefore, divorce was even considered mandatory. However, in the Rabbinic schools there was still disputes about the interpretation of Mosaic regulation and the grounds of divorce (Deut.24:1).

Teachings in Matthew 19:1-12, Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18
The two major passages containing the teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage are found in Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-12. The question the Pharisees proposed to Jesus focussed on the significance of the phrase “some indecency” found in Deuteronomy 24:1. As we have seen earlier, there were two extreme schools – the Shammaites and Hillelites. The Pharisees wanted to force Christ to choose between the two schools so that they could use His answer to accuse Him either of laxity or narrow rigourism. Jesus chose not to take sides. Instead, He answered by calling attention to God’s original plan for marriage. He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder (Matt 19:4; cf. Mark 10:6-9).

Divorce is clearly condemned as an act against God’s original plan of marriage. Jesus quotes Genesis1:27 and 2:24 to the Pharisees before making His statement on divorce (Matt.19:4-6). The unity of husband and wife is God ordained and it is referred to as “one-flesh.” Moreover, Jesus affirms that it is God Himself who actually joins together a couple in marriage and what God has joined together no human being has the right to separate. This is a categorical statement and not an opinion. It is note worthy that Jesus uses this image of spiritual unity to argue that marriage should not be dissolved by people, not to argue that it cannot be.

In Luke, the teaching of Jesus on divorce is placed in a different context (Lk.16:18), but the message is the same. Luke’s thrust is on remarriage but incidentally speaks of divorce too. Therefore, as far as Mark and Luke is concerned, Jesus clearly forbids divorce and remarriage on any account. There is no exception whatsoever. Jesus reveals the permanence and true spirit of God’s law by condemning divorce and remarriage as a sin of adultery. Jesus’ main point in these statements was that divorce is contrary to God’s plan for marriage and should never be taken lightly. Stott puts it aptly, “The teaching is unambiguous. The marriage bond is more than a human contract: it is a divine yoke.”

Jesus’ Explanation of the Mosaic Law
The Pharisees were not contend with Jesus’ explanation. They challenged Jesus with another question: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” (Matt 19:7). They were trying to find fault with Jesus for overruling Mosaic law. To this Jesus replied, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8; cf. Mark 10:5-6). By this Jesus implied that the Mosaic permission was occasioned by the stubbornness of the Israelites and not God’s original plan. Stott calls the Mosaic provisions as a concession to human sin and not divine approval for sinning. Therefore, Mosaic law cannot be taken as God’s approval for divorce.

Matthew’s Exceptive Clause
However, there is a crucial difference between Jesus’ teaching given in Matthew’s gospel and others. Matthew’s account has an “exceptive clause” in both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, (“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness”). Citing the parallels in Mark and Luke some have concluded the exceptive clause as inauthentic. This is not so. David Atkinson argues, “Either Mark and Luke assumed it or Matthew who was concerned about law and order for his Jewish readership felt mentioning it.” Nevertheless, it is a true statement of Jesus Christ.

The Greek word used here for marital unfaithfulness is porneia. Like the Hebrew word erwat dabhar in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, this word too is much disputed. Depending upon the interpretation of this word, the grounds of divorce are determined. Historically, porneia has been used with wider and narrower meanings. The traditional understanding of the term porneia was adultery. Since the word for adultery is moicheia and not porneia, some have concluded that the exceptive clause does not mean adultery at all. Moreover, there are those who think that this exception applies only to illegitimate unions. This is the major view held by Roman Catholics. Many scholars limit the exception to sins of incest, fornication and even spiritual adultery.  However, the New Testament sense of the word can take wider meaning, not just adultery but every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse (I Cor.5:1, 6:13, 15:16, Matt.1:18,19, Rom.1:26-28). Unfortunately, some have used  porneia’s wider meaning to mean offences like cruelty, incompatibility and so on. Stott rightly points out that it is not possible to do so.

Summary of Jesus’ Teaching
The above discussed arguments establish the truth that Jesus permitted divorce only on the ground of sexual immorality because it violates the “one-flesh” principle. This does not contradict his stricter view that divorce is sinful. Rather, it is consistent with God’s action (His divorce of Israel) as seen in the prophetical books of the Old Testament. However, Jesus did not make divorce mandatory. Collins makes a crucial observation, “Even when unfaithfulness is involved, divorce is not commanded, it  is merely permitted. Forgiveness and reconciliation are still preferable to divorce.” The overarching teaching of Jesus is consistent with the rest of the Bible – God always hates divorce and the exception is only a hesitant concession. Therefore, divorce as such is never justifiable as such, even for marriage unfaithfulness.

By Sam K John

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